learning disabilities

Depression in Young People with a Learning Disability



Depression is a term which is used to describe depressed mood and/or loss of pleasure in most activities.  It should be abnormal for the individual and last for more than two weeks. Its severity is determined by both the number and severity of symptoms and the impact it has on the young person’s everyday functioning- what is normal for them.

A wide range of biological, psychological and social factors can impact on a young person's response to interventions/treatment. It may be difficult to determine these factors when working with young people who have a learning disability. Therefore it is important to consider personal past history/presentation and family history of depression as part of a diagnostic assessment.

For children and young people who have a diagnosis of a learning disability, the prevalence rate of a mental illness is 36% compared to 8% for those without a learning disability. (Mental Health Foundation 2018). These figures demonstrate that children and young people with a learning disability are just as likely to experience mental illness, if not more so.   

The presentation of depressive symptoms in children and young people with a learning disability can be similar to those without learning disabilities. However, the onset and interpretation of symptoms can be more complex and may require more in-depth assessment and observation by a qualified health professional to help to understand the presentation of the child or young person. Communication difficulties can mean more reliance on observation of changes in functioning including sleep, eating.  The young person may not use emotional language to describe how they are feeling.


Common symptoms


common symptoms of depression in a young person with a learning disability may include:

  • Loss of appetite or increase in appetite

  • Changes in sleep pattern

  • Loss of interest in usual motivators

  • Apparent loss of skills

  • Increase in challenging behaviour/irritability/anxiety

  • Withdrawal from daily routines/motivating activities

  • Increase in dependence from parent/carer

  • Deterioration in self-help and social skills

  • Increase in self-injurious behaviours


How to help


how to help as a parent/carer

  • Try to maintain normal routines/structure to the day

  • Provide reassurance and a calm environment

  • Provide a means of communication if possible to help the young person to express how they are feeling. This may be social stories, emotions cards, communicating through play/role modelling.

treatment options

Depending on the presentation/difficulties the young person displays, LD CAMHS could provide the following:

  • Assessment of symptoms/formulation

  • Positive Behaviour Approach- interventions/strategies and care planning

  • Medication can be considered however this would be carefully planned with the young person’s family and a Psychiatrist but is not usually the first line of treatment.

Further support, advice and self-help


The National Autistic Society provides information and support for people with Autism and their families and for professionals. They are a very active organisation and offer some really useful information about strategies and approaches for supporting people with Autism.

The British Institute of Learning Disabilities also have some useful information and further advice about a variety of common issues. 

Local Offer is a Derbyshire-specific site which allows you to search for lots of different services, including parenting support groups, in the local area.